Xinjiang - Tibet hwy 5

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The next morning the wind had died and the road leveled off, so I abandoned hopes of continuing at last night's blistering pace. It took about an hour to finally leave the stony, windswept environment and turn into a greener valley, and another two to reach the small town of Domar, where I stopped for lunch. Proper food for the first time in days! There was even a supermarket, for which I successfully asked directions with the help of Peter's phrasebook, (the directions were 'over there'. As ever, the 'town' only had one street.) I stocked up on biscuits, chicken and a sweet I found nowhere else for a 1000km in either direction- a bar of caramel with peanuts set inside it. Otherwise known as 'bike fuel'. This was the only food I found more energy-dense and tastier than the (fortunately more ubiquitous) Chinese army biscuit rations. I might never have discovered this fantastic source of calories if one of the army convoys hadn't given Magda a couple of ration packs. The compressed sesame and nut cuboids were wrapped in silver foil with a military motif and a number stamped on it. I'd have guessed it was plastic explosives before food. However, Chinese army surplus is the Tesco of Tibet; almost the only consumer goods available have come in through and for the army, so these biscuits were everywhere.

The afternoon's ride was slow, as the road deteriorated further into soft sand. This was more than compensated for by the sudden and unexpected appearance of a vast, salt lake. From a distance I thought there were icebergs or a glacier ahead, but these transpired to be huge rocks of crystalised salt protruding from the water. I contemplated camping there simply to spend more time in such peculiar and stunning surroundings, but the practical concern of the brackish water persuaded me to push on. Instead, I found myself once again in the middle of a huge, flat, stony and windswept wasteland. I have a suspicion there's a geological consistency between these barren valley floors, probably involving ancient glaciers. This one, however, had a strip of green grass, suggesting a small river running along the northern valley wall. Determined not to expose myself to another tempestuous night, I hacked across the plain. I should have guessed, from the fact that I needed my mini-telescope to see it, but the enormity of the mountains and the expanse of the plains corrupted my sense of distance: It was two kilometers to the river. However, it was sheltered and the water was fresh, so I chalked up 2-1 to the good and settled in for the night.

It wasn't far from my campsite to the huge Pangong Tso. This lake is over 100km long, but only a couple of kilometers wide, and stretches across the border of Tibet into Ladakh in India. At this end it was stunning. The road followed a valley approaching it, with peaks to either side which appeared to have permanent, localized stormclouds, while the valley remained dry. One advantage of the high altitude: you can ride around the weather. Once it reached the lake the road skirted around it, so I had a whole morning of fantastic lakeside views. Since the sun was shining and the air was warm I took the opportunity for a quick swim, one of the few washes I had between Yecheng and Ali.

I stopped for lunch just after the lake in Rutok, the only settlement even close to deserving the appellation of 'town' before Ali. The noodle shop I ate in had a TV, showing, of all things, the Tour De France. From 3km out the road was perfect tarmac. It's impossible to describe how pleasurable those 3km were, after weeks of mud, sand and corrugations. I should have realized I was now in the land of Kharma, and I'd have to pay for such a treat. I couldn't stop in the town, which had a (probably outdated) reputation as the home of officious PSB agents and the last hurdle before Ali, so I pushed on. While the road into town was heaven, the road out was purgatory and hell combined with daytime TV and Marmite. Of all the nightmarish surfaces to ride on- sticky mud, soft sand, loose rocks, compact corrugations- a road under construction has to be the worst. Inevitably it will include all the above in unpredictable combinations, depending on the stage of construction, along with pitfalls, wet cement, carelessly operated heavy machinery and, arguably the most wearing, construction workers' banter. (This equally incomprehensible but annoying in any language or culture).

Despite the gruelling slow progress, and losing another pannier-carrier bolt, I managed to hack to within 100km of Ali. I camped immediately below the road in a reasonably sheltered, green and marshy river valley.
The last 100km to Ali were mainly tough, with more semi-constructed roads. There were some stretches of sealed highway, (one so new I didn't ride it for fear of melting my tyres). I had to climb one final pass, which should have been easy- it wasn't particularly high and there was hardtop down, if not asphalt. However, the majority of the climb was, unusually, straight up an inclined valley, so according to all reference points the road appeared level. Without an altimeter or a flat horizon to tell you you're climbing, you just feel ridiculously slow and weak. It's an extraordinarily soul-sapping sensation. Halfway up the pass there was a small road-builders camp around an aggregate crushing plant, and I stopped to beg for some water. What they gave me they claimed was tea. It was not tea. It was not even butter tea. It tasted like a solution of last weeks bonfire ash and compost, in pondwater. It was, however, wet, and you never know when the next river will be, so I carried it all the way up the pass. Fortunately there were some more road builders at the top who had fresh water, so I could safely pour the brown gunk away.

About five kilometers from Ali, as if to present one last obstacle, the road was blocked and the off-road track was soft sand. Forced to choose the unrideable over the impassable, I cursed and pushed the first 100m around the obstruction, until I saw a car up ahead. Not a 4WD jeep, not a truck- a car. This was like a floating shipwreck seeing a seagull- a sure sign that civilization was at hand. To make my joy complete, the car was stuck. I surged ahead with the burst of energy that comes with knowing you're nearly there, and the warm glow that comes with feeling smug.
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